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Georgias religious freedom bill creates a divide
Proposal hits close to home with rowing group expressing concern
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Is it license to discriminate against gays and lesbians, or is it about protecting the interests of religious beliefs?

While state lawmakers debate the merits of the proposed Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the national media is looking on.

And the issue took on a local angle this week when the American Collegiate Rowing Association, which will hold its annual national championship regatta at the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue in May, came out against the bill.

“The (ACRA) is strongly committed to the values of inclusion, diversity and acceptance of all people in the sport of rowing,” the organization said in a statement.

If passed, the law would forbid government from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs unless the government can prove a compelling interest to do so, and would cover individuals and closely held corporations.

Critics say such measures are being considered as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares for a possible ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, and believe it could be used as legal cover for business owners to deny services to gays and transgender people.

Opponents have pushed for adding language to prevent that from happening.

That’s exactly what lawmakers in Indiana intend to do after a similar bill was recently signed into law there, sparking controversy and national media coverage, though it remains unclear just what changes will be made.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to discriminate against anyone,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, said at a news conference Tuesday in Indianapolis, adding that the law does not allow businesses the religious right to refuse gay and lesbian customers. “The language is still being worked out.”

Indianapolis is the host city for this weekend’s men’s college basketball Final Four, prompting the NCAA to express concerns about the state’s religious freedom law.

And business leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, have said the bill could hurt the state’s economic fortunes.

Hotel and tourism industry executives, for example, have said the bill could create negative perceptions for people booking conventions and large meetings in states where such laws exist.

About 20 states have similar laws on the books. Supporters say they are modeled on a federal law of the same name signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Meanwhile, representatives from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce have expressed displeasure with Georgia’s version and its possible consequences for business.

But whereas the Georgia version of the bill applies to conflicts between an individual and a governmental entity that has “substantially burdened” the exercise of religion, Indiana’s law differs in that it also covers disputes between two private parties.

The Georgia law also includes language acknowledging the courts historical “overriding interest in eradicating discrimination.”

But whether perception meets reality when it comes to the bill’s intent and implementation, it’s the potential hit to the economy that most scares local officials.

“It concerns me not only for us in Gainesville and Hall County, but all over the state,” said Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan. “We don’t need to do anything that will adversely affect our state, our cities and our counties.”

Dunagan said he has contacted state lawmakers representing Hall County and the city, and believes they should either back off the bill or seek to clarify it as Indiana intends.

Local officials fear that major events like the rowing national championships could be lost if the bill becomes law.

Over the past two years, the regatta has generated an estimated economic impact to the region of $2 million.

“This regatta is not only large in scale but also large in terms of economic impact for the Gainesville and Hall County community,” said Morgan House, manager of the Olympic venue. “I am very grateful for the fact that they have chosen to come to the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue for the past four years when there are other options available to them. I believe that the venue not only offers the best water in the world but also offers the greatest hospitality and I think that has played a big role in why they have continued to come.”

Last year, the event drew over 1,500 athletes from 63 colleges and universities across the United States.

“We are very fortunate to have such a supportive community for our sport in the Gainesville and Hall County region,” the ACRA statement continues. “However, we are deeply concerned with legislation being considered by the Georgia General Assembly that could negatively impact our athletic community, coaching staff and fans. In particular, we are cognizant of the impact such legislation could have on the LGBT coaches, athletes and family members who attend the regatta annually.”

The bill, which passed the Senate in early March, stalled in a House committee last week after a Republican member successfully added anti-discrimination language.

Supporters of the act, however, said the new language essentially gutted the bill’s protections for people exercising their religious beliefs, and immediately moved to table the matter.

“From what I’ve been told, it’s dead,” Dunagan said.

State Rep. Carl Rogers confirmed that to The Times late Tuesday afternoon, saying the bill likely won’t emerge before the session ends Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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